Main Image Credit The Grenfell Tower façade. Courtesy of ChiralJon/Flickr
Most public attention is on the role of central government in handling the consequences of the current pandemic. But local authorities also play a critical part.
Local authorities have a central role in preparing for, responding to and recovering from emergencies. This is necessarily true if the incident is itself local. However, it is also true in terms of managing the local dimension of a much wider event. I was reminded of this when I heard that London Councils (the body that represents London local government) had updated their handbook for elected councillors in the light of the current coronavirus crisis.
The essence of local democracy is that local people elect councillors to deliver local services. And they expect their local authority not only to continue to do so in the middle of an emergency but also to respond swiftly and effectively to any event that occurs. As the Handbook says:
‘After an emergency response has been dealt with and the blue light services have withdrawn, the role of local authorities often becomes even more prominent as they assume leadership responsibility for recovery. As well as being important to those affected by an emergency, recovery can be a long, complex and highly-sensitive process. When done well however, it can also be a process that provides opportunities to improve local places and strengthen communities’.
Part of this is a local leadership function with the Council Leader or elected Mayor offering advice and reassurance to residents and local businesses. In Islington, for example, the Leader, Richard Watts, has recorded regular video messages setting out what the Council is doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, Camden Council is signposting how to get help from volunteer groups for those who are vulnerable and self-isolating and the Mayor of Hackney has announced a £100 million package to support the Borough’s businesses and community organisations during the crisis including a three-month rent pause. And it is not just in London: Sheffield City Council is providing a wide range of support for vulnerable people, as is Leeds City Council, as well as smaller councils like Newark and Sherwood District with their Humanitarian Assistance Response Team.
At the most local level, the elected ward councillor can play a significant part. Their area will comprise, perhaps, 5,000 to 10,000 residents and they will know it well. They can help the local authority’s situational awareness – vital in any emergency – and they can pass on local concerns and help allay fears in neighbourhood communities.
Of course, in the current situation leadership at national level is crucial and the country looks to its government to deploy the powers and resources of the state.
However, the impact on individuals will often be determined much closer to home. It matters how local services are marshalled. So does the extent to which volunteers are organised and encouraged.
When I was a Council Leader – admittedly now more than 20 years ago – the authority’s emergency planning officer reported directly to the chief executive with an office just down the corridor from mine. There was a room equipped so that it could be converted to an emergency control room. The Council was ready to respond to all sorts of events with clearly designated responsibilities for various functions residing with senior officers. If I remember rightly, for example, the Director of Social Services held the stock of emergency bedding. There was a list of buildings that could be opened up as emergency shelters if needed. As far as I know, most other local authorities had similar arrangements in place.
But that was then. Successive rounds of budget reductions in the intervening years have reduced the capacity of many local councils to respond. This was demonstrated – tragically – in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 fire at Grenfell Tower in which 72 people died and several hundred were made homeless. Kensington and Chelsea Council was slow to respond effectively, but fortunately other nearby local authorities mobilised their resources to help out.
This was an important wake-up call for local councils and that is reflected in so many of their responses to the current crisis. Importantly, most have recognised the importance of taking an holistic approach: protecting essential services (e.g. refuse collection), utilising council workers in collaboration with community organisations to support the vulnerable and isolated, and using Council finance to enable local businesses and organisations to continue.
Local leadership will often be central to ensuring that a sense of community spirit and engagement is engendered. Local elected councils are critical in this and must always be seen as part of any response to a national emergency.
Lord Toby Harris has been actively involved in security and resilience issues for a number of years and held significant local government appointments, including as a council leader and later as Leader of the Labour Group on the London Assembly.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.